Feds Could Open Criminal Investigation Into Mine Explosion

U.S. Attorney will 'vigorously' pursue prosecution of any criminal violations.

Apr. 12, 2010 ? -- The United States Attorney in West Virginia today took the rare step of confirming he plans a "vigorous" prosecution of any criminal infraction that might have led to the deaths of 29 coal miners in last week's Upper Big Branch mine explosion.

"The United States Attorney's Office is ready, willing and able to receive any information and/or investigative reports regarding the explosion and subsequent deaths of the twenty-nine miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia." U.S. Attorney Charles T. Miller stated in a carefully worded press release issued Monday morning. "If the investigation undertaken by the Mine Safety and Health Administration reveals that criminal violations have occurred, we will work vigorously with investigators to pursue those offenses to the fullest extent of the law."

If he proceeds, this will be the second time Miller has pursued criminal charges against a mine owned by Massey Energy. Last year, Miller settled a case that resulted from a fatal fire at a mine owned by the company, leading to a $4.2 million fine and criminal pleas on nine counts of having willfully violated federal safety laws. At the time it was the largest fine in the history of the coal industry.

Miller indicated in his statement that he would wait for the outcome of an investigation by the federal agency that oversees mine safety before determining whether the mine's operators or its parent company should be prosecuted in federal court.

Massey Energy released a statement last week saying it considered the safety of its workers a top priority, and that it has been working with federal officials to resolve concerns raised by hundreds of citations for safety infractions.

A top federal safety official confirmed to ABC News that the morning before the explosion, he was already en route to West Virginia to talk with Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship about repeated ventilation problems at the Upper Big Branch mine.

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